Teachers share formative assessment strategies that work

Real-time observation and feedback tools help teachers snapshot student learning

Ed. note: Today’s students have too many tests to take—but today’s teachers still need insight into their classes’ knowledge and skills. Adding new tests every time students need to prove mastery rarely seems like the right answer. For some classrooms, the solution lies in formative assessments, which gauge their students’ understanding and personalize their lessons in real time. Here, two educators share how formative assessments are transforming their students’ learning across the board.

Dawn Nelson, school library media specialist

“Formative assessment is an essential part of teaching because it helps guide instruction. Checking for understanding of important concepts helps the teacher decide to move on or to continue instruction to ensure that crucial information is not lacking.  It can be something as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down, exit tickets when students leave the classroom, use of digital tools, or actual quizzes. Because it does inform instruction, formative assessment should be incorporated on a regular, if not daily, basis.

The most helpful methods of formative assessment are those that are easy to implement but still provide the information a teacher needs about whether their students have met their learning targets. Verbal questions that require simple student responses are easy but may not provide enough information, especially about students who may not understand but are reluctant to respond.

Digital tools such as Plickers, Kahoot, or Socrative provide that information but require teacher time to be created and implemented well. With a tool like pivotEd, the quality questions are designed to provide the answers the teacher needs, and because they are built right into the instruction, they are easy to implement. It’s especially helpful to provide different ways for students to respond, which can draw out reluctant or hesitant students.

When I monitor student engagement in real-time, I can provide instant feedback for students so they know what they need to do to gain more understanding. Several of the activities in pivotEd let students see their responses along with their classmates in a non-competitive way that can lead to class interaction on the topics. It also gives a platform for those students who may not say anything in class but who will add their voice to this non-threatening platform.

Seeing the students’ interaction with the material and each other in real time, I can change instruction almost immediately as I identify what concepts need additional clarification or what topics we can move through—and as students themselves identify where they may need additional support. Assessment for learning can be ongoing and become an integrated part of instruction.

Here’s an example: I was recently teaching a unit that began with a question asking the students to put words into a word cloud. It became obvious that several of the students really didn’t understand a specific word in the question. Instead of moving on with the lesson, I chose to stop and review what the word meant. During the class discussion I saw responses in the word cloud change as students gained understanding. The discussion was robust and relevant, and I saw the results of that activity as the students responded differently to the material with a better grasp of the concept. It changed the entire lesson for the better.”


Why one district’s students studied only STEM for a week

Boston asked middle school students to focus just on STEM learning for an entire week—and it paid off

For one week in October, students in Boston’s public middle schools—6,500 students in 36 schools–set aside their regular lessons and participated in Boston STEM Week, a hands-on, in-depth program connecting students with real-world examples of STEM in action.

Organized by i2 Learning during October 3-7, Boston STEM Week grew out of a STEM-focused summer camp that took place for one week on empty school campuses. Organizations such as MIT, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science in Boston contributed hands-on STEM courses for students.

In 2015, teachers working at the camps observed a high level of student engagement, but noted one drawback: the STEM camps only attracted students who were already interested in the topic. They wondered if expanding it to public school classrooms could engage students who hadn’t otherwise expressed an interest in STEM.

The district-wide program was first piloted in one Boston school, followed by a pilot in 15 charter and parochial schools, funded by Boston-based organizations.

To prepare, middle school teachers attended summer professional development in the form of a two-day workshop focused on hands-on learning with the STEM curriculum they planned to use.

“Our goal is to reach kids who might have ignored STEM otherwise,” said i2 Learning founder Ethan Berman. “[STEM is] where our world is going. I think so many kids just don’t have exposure, and we’re trying to get it to them early. They don’t necessarily know what real-world math and science are. Even beyond STEM as a subject area, learning to build with their hands, using creativity, being allowed to fail, and building collaboration skills are valuable for today’s students.”

i2 Learning reached out to foundations and philanthropic groups for support as it moved to scale across the city’s middle schools. “We needed all of these partners to make something like Boston STEM Week happen at that scale,” he said.

Next page: How teachers prepared for the week-long event; how students responded


App of the Week: drag-and-drop virtual bulletin boards

Customizable bulletin boards jazz up collaboration and ease discussion

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Padlet is a website and app that allows kids to collect information from the internet and pin it onto virtual bulletin boards using a simple drag-and-drop system. Videos, text, links, images — basically anything — can be added to a board and organized there, like a page full of Post-it notes. There’s also the option to include rich text (Padlet provides a simple HTML guide in their Help sidebar). You can add as many notes to a wall as you like; it scrolls in all directions.

Price: Free, paid

Grades: K-5

Rating: 4/5

Pros: It’s beyond easy to use, the interface is intuitive, and help is available around every corner.

Cons: Walls are semi-private by default, meaning there’s an extra step involved in ensuring total privacy for student users.

Bottom line: Padlet gives students their own little corner of the internet to collect and save information in a simple, fun manner.


This project uses open data to help plug opportunity gaps

The Opportunity Project encourages partnerships and data use to empower communities with information access

An expanded federal initiative aims to use open data to improve opportunities, including educational opportunities, for Americans.

Originally launched by President Obama in March 2016, the Opportunity Project is intended to jumpstart the creation of new digital tools that use federal and local data to empower communities with information about critical resources, such as affordable housing, quality schools, and jobs.

The project provides easy access to curated federal and local datasets at opportunity.census.gov, and facilitates collaboration between technologists, issue experts, and community leaders.

Twenty-two non-governmental organizations and seven student teams participated in the Opportunity Project. They were asked to develop solutions for problem statements put forth by several federal agencies. The teams—including LiveStories—presented their solutions at a White House event.

The Department of Education identified a national priority to help students, schools, and community leaders navigate information about educational equity and opportunity.

One new free tool aims to make it easy for parents and stakeholders to compare school districts across the U.S. to determine if students have equal opportunities to succeed.

LiveStories IQ puts digital tools and data in families’ hands to help them navigate resources pertaining to school information. It can help superintendents, government education agencies, policymakers and parents identify and understand where inequities exist between districts, between schools, and between different student demographics. Users also can compare school districts with similar profiles and learn from communities facing the same challenges as theirs.

LiveStories focused on a problem posed by the U.S. Department of Education: identifying inequities in the nation’s 95,000-plus public schools for such factors as per-pupil expenditure, teacher experience, access to rigorous coursework, and chronic absenteeism.

Data Society and Kitamba worked together to build the “Philadelphia School Community Resource Mapper” to help school leaders find and develop community partnerships, and to help non-profit service providers identify regions where their services can have the greatest impact. They brought together data from the Census Bureau, HHS, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

GreatSchools and Education Cities’ “Opportunity Dashboard” uses college readiness data from the Department of Education’s CRDC to measure gaps in access to educational opportunities across student groups to help parents, educators, and advocates fight for equity and improvement.

The project also resulted in new commitments from federal government, nonprofits, tech companies, coding boot camps, and academic institutions to use project data to create or use digital tools to build stronger opportunities nationwide, such as the Department of Labor and Department of Education’s commitment to co-lead a new Opportunity Project challenge, new funding from Coursera for universities to develop courses that use the Opportunity Project data in their curriculum, and more.


Report: Schools expect faster internet within 3 years

E-rate funding applicants weigh in on the program's strengths and opportunities for improvement

Seventy-two percent of E-rate applicants participating in a recent survey said wi-fi is critical to fulfilling their organization’s mission.

Twenty years after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 created E-rate funding, significant measures are underway to update the program that has become vital to schools and libraries across the United States.

The E-rate Trends Report from Funds For Learning aims to help policymakers, administrators and other stakeholders as they shape the future of the program.

Next page: Top findings from the report


How one district built a better blended learning program

An increasingly common learning model results in dramatic improvements in a Tennessee district

Blended learning is rapidly becoming a core part of schools’ educational approach, partly because the model suits so many educational needs–credit recovery, dual enrollment, and access to advanced courses not always offered in brick-and-mortar schools.

To help connect educators with blended learning schools and districts, the Clayton Christensen Institute (CCI) curates the Blended Learning Universe, an online hub and directory offering resources about blended learning basics, research, and examples of different implementations.

CCI previously only awarded a Blended Learning Universe distinction to individual schools, but expanded it to districts that model how a school’s blended learning pilot can be brought to scale.

Within CCI’s Blended Learning Universe hub, district administrators also can connect and collaborate with others to learn more about bringing a blended learning pilot to scale.

Tennessee’s rural Putnam County School System was among the first to receive a district-level Blended Learning Universe designation.

What is now a district-wide blended learning initiative began as an online credit-recovery program in 2008, said Sam Brooks, the district’s personal learning coordinator.

Next page: How the district implemented a model for online instruction


New STEM school forges pathway to college

Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis aims to increase diversity in university STEM pipeline

Purdue University and Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) will open a new STEM-focused charter school aimed at encouraging minority students and traditionally underrepresented students to apply and pursue their STEM interests at the university level.

Purdue Polytechnic High School Indianapolis is scheduled to open in fall 2017, and applications are already open.

“For this freshman class, we were only able to admit 26 students from the entire IPS system. That’s unacceptable and someone has to find a way to do better,” Purdue President Mitch Daniels said. “We thank IPS and the city for this unique partnership, which we hope will build a new pathway to Purdue and to successful careers for future students from downtown Indianapolis.”

The challenges are not unique to Indianapolis. Among the 48,000 Indiana high school graduates in 2014 who took the SAT, only 101 African Americans and 156 Hispanics had SAT scores and GPAs in the range of the average Purdue freshman. Among that same set of graduates, only seven African Americans and 16 Hispanics fell in the range of the top 15 percent of Purdue freshmen.

Next page: How the STEM curriculum will help students prepare for college and the workforce


In the marketplace: Gaming, digital citizenship, PD initiatives, and more

Don't miss this recap of the latest product news, reports, and research in the ed-tech world

Remaining a tech-savvy educator means keeping on top of the myriad changes and trends in education, how technology can support those trends, and how teaching and learning can best benefit from near-constant change.

Below, we’ve gathered some of the latest and most relevant marketplace news to keep you up-to-date on product developments, teaching and learning initiatives, and new trends in education.

Teq, a Long Island-based educational technology and professional development (PD) company, has received approval from the New York State Department of Education to provide Continuing Teacher and Leader Education (CTLE). Teq Online PD offers educators unlimited access to over 200 live and archived professional development sessions focused on the effective integration of technology into instruction. There are certification tracks on Google, Microsoft, Apple, SMART, among other topics, like online assessment, STEM, ELA, Math, Social Studies, and PBL. All of these courses and certifications are now CTLE approved. Read more.

By advancing the learning experience with hands-on, relatable and academically rigorous games, Triseum is transforming higher education as we know it. A new round of funding is enabling the company to make an even bigger difference in the way students learn. Triseum, which grew out of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University, has closed an additional $2 million in funding led by existing private investors, enabling the company to further build out its products, operations and team. Read more.

Edmentum, a provider of web-based learning solutions, announces a brand-new K-6 math, reading, and ELA individualized learning program. This release builds upon Edmentum’s mission of being educators’ most trusted partner in creating successful student outcomes everywhere learning occurs. Edmentum’s new solution pairs adaptive diagnostic assessments with individualized learning paths. The program is designed by educators for educators to provide targeted, assessment-driven instruction, reinforcement, and support in math, reading, and language arts. Read more.

The Learning Assembly, a national network of education organizations that help educators rigorously implement and assess innovative tools to support teaching and learning, released the results of a national survey of K-12 public school parents designed to gauge their perceptions of technology use in school. According to the survey, parents see a growing role of technology in schools, with 66% of parents indicating that technology use has increased over the past few years. The survey also shows that while 93% of parents believe in the use of technology to tailor student learning, only 1 in 3 believe that schools are currently doing an excellent job using technology for this purpose. Read more.

Common Sense released its newest report, Connection and Control: Case Studies of Media Use Among Lower-Income Minority Youth and Parents. The report showed striking differences in media use among varying demographics. Teens and tweens from lower-income families spend more time with media than those from higher-income families. And African-American teens use an average of over 11 hours of media a day, compared with almost nine hours among Latinos and eight and a half among whites. Read more.

Study.com has launched a series of articles and teaching resources designed to address the learning challenges associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The 15 articles and 53 lessons have been released in conjunction with ADHD awareness month and include parent and teacher strategies to support learners in school and at home. Read more.

All middle schools in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) have officially begun to incorporate digital citizenship education into the curriculum. The curriculum, which covers issues such as privacy, cyberbullying, internet safety and other digital dilemmas, is being offered thanks to a partnership with Common Sense Education and a generous grant from the Delaney Family Fund. The program will extend to students in all grade levels over the next three years. Read more.

With Build English Fast, neuroscience-designed software from Scientific Learning Corp., K-12 schools are taking advantage of research on how the brain learns and the latest technology to accelerate English language acquisition for English language learners (ELLs). Of course, students who are not familiar with English idioms, cultural references, and vocabulary may need extra support when learning the language. To help teachers provide targeted support, Scientific Learning has released the Build English Fast Offline Resources for English Learners. Read more.

Do K-12 educators have the power to shape their professional learning destinies? In a nationwide survey of more than 500 principals and teachers, the resounding answer is “not enough.” Episode 4 of the Performance Matters (formerly Truenorthlogic) Educator Viewpoints on Personalized Professional Learning Salon Series explores ways to increase relevance and choice in teacher professional learning. K-12 teachers, school leaders and district administrators are invited to discuss these issues in a free webinar on October 27 at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Read more.


How today’s tech departments are moving into the future

Despite challenges, tech leaders see opportunities, too

Tech directors are a busy lot these days. With big changes to federal funding models, pressing bandwidth needs (on campus and at home), and the everlasting conversation between IT and instruction departments, there’s a lot on their plates.

Fortunately, districts appear to be meeting these challenges head-on, as evidenced by a recent panel discussion for administrators and tech directors in Dallas, hosted by the IT products vendor PCMG, called “Preparing the Next Generation of Personalized Learners in the Digital Age.”

Moderated by Gabe Soumakian, the former superintendent of Oxnard Union High School District in California, the panelists spoke at length about their challenges, solutions, and the spirit of collaboration. Joining Soumakian were Stuart Burt, chief technology officer for Royse City ISD; Doug Brubaker, an assistant superintendent at Garland ISD; and Tom Murray, a former educator and tech director who now helps coordinate the Future Ready Schools project for the Alliance for Excellent Education. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation.

Gabe Soumakian: With E-rate modernization, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and more taking place at once, what are you looking at in terms of changes to the way you’re funding technology these days?

Stuart Burt: When they changed E-rate a couple years ago, it was a learning curve. I think we are starting now to take pretty good advantage of it. Especially since they’re funding Category Two — well, they say they’re funding it at least. They funded it last year, which was awesome for us because as a small district it was great to get extra bandwidth and equipment. The downside is our finance people are expecting the phone costs to go up now, as they’re not funding that as much.

Doug Brubaker: The (FCC’s) Lifeline program has been expanded through ESSA in order to provide at-home high-speed internet for kids. That’s supposed to come out in December of this year. We’re watching it because we have some concerns about sending devices home with kids who might not be able to use them because they don’t have internet at home. We’re working to develop a registry of local businesses who have a window sticker and are willing to let kids come in and use the internet. Being able to offer a $10/month discount on service for high speed internet is something we’re pretty excited about.

Tom Murray: Lifeline starts Dec 1. A handful of major carriers are expected to be ready to go on that date. The modernization to Lifeline didn’t increase funding overall, but families will have the choice between phone discounts and a credit for broadband at home. Part of the of the difficulty with USAC (Universal Service Administrative Company), when you take a look on their website, vendors have already opted in for Lifeline, but there’s no national mandate. So if you’re in a rural area, it’s possible it’s not going to support you. They did phase out the ability for families to use free and reduced lunch as a qualifier. We’ve pushed back on that because it puts districts in a interesting spot because that’s what we use even though it’s confidential data. Families can go through welfare and SNAP and things like that to get involved with Lifeline.

Another support I would offer is EveryoneOn.org. You basically go there as a parent, put your zip code in, whether you’re eligible for free and reduced lunch (say free), and it will give you all the options for discounted internet in your area.

Soumakian: Are you working with open educational resources? What are some of the challenges there?

Brubaker: Back in college, I remember having to pay for those textbooks that were $200-300, and now there are free digital textbooks that are open source. I would really like to see that done at the K-12 level. I remember from teaching, and also from being a student, that some of our best teachers were not necessarily the ones that were tied to one resource, but they used a lot of different things and they mixed and matched and were able to curate things.

Burt: We did FlexBooks at our district as well, and it was a good thing for our students, One of the big issues that we have is once we get the textbooks, it’s hard to get them in the students’ hands. It takes a month for us to get all of our data into their systems, whether it be a manual upload or synced through Clever. I think there needs to be a push for a one method to get our data, whether it be an API or a standard upload format. Whatever it is, a lot of districts out there are dealing with the same things we are. With an upcoming legislative session, one of the things we can do is really push our legislators to say, “Can you support one method for publishers to use?” The OneRoster (standard) is a good one. I don’t know if we’re going to get there, but it would definitely help us get things to students faster.

Murray: I work with the Office of Education Technology and the Department of Education and they’ve pushed the #GoOpen movement. My personal opinion, I think of open education resources as being free like a puppy. To think that we can take these resources, put them out there, and they magically work isn’t realistic. The only way they work is through high quality professional learning opportunities for teachers. That takes time and money.

I don’t want to see #GoOpen become the digital worksheet graveyard. That’s not going to move us anywhere instructionally. I don’t want to see us sacrifice quality for “free” because they are two important, different things. There’s a couple of partners out there we work with: OER Commons, they’ve got all the resources; ISKME, they run OER Commons; another one is Creative Commons; Open Up Resources (rebranded from the K-12 OER Collaborative). The other piece is to check out #GoOpen states. I know they’re trying to move together on this.

Soumakian: How do you keep IT staff current and collaborative with other educators?

Burt: Our curriculum and tech departments are tied together; they’re separate departments, but one hand doesn’t move without the other. My department is pretty much a staff of non-educators and I’ve told them, “You now work in education.” They wanted someone to show them the education side. Teachers would ask us questions we don’t know how to answer. I think it’s just something that needs to be ongoing, such as hosting virtual meetings or doing PD. We have an upcoming session for Google Expeditions, and all the teachers coming to that are going to be learning with my IT staff. It’s about actually training my staff like educators.

Brubaker: We do come from different worlds sometimes. There just has to be a lot of dialogue. In my case, in one of the districts I work for, I thought it was helpful that the instructional technology people and the technical, IT people were within the same department. The instructional technology people were the “why” folks, and if they’re just down the hall, and you can get them together and talk about things that are coming up, it serves to keep that why in front of them as we’re working. Another thing I would like to see is the idea of being able to have certifications and other milestones in educators’ careers as something they automatically get a raise for. So that you continue to keep people on that track and developing their skills.

Murray: I think we’re seeing a shift nationwide. It’s got to be learning driven. I think in a traditional model, you’ve got an IT department and they’ve got a handle on things that are vital: like wireless, security, privacy — that stuff’s vital to the instructional side. A lot of times we see that finger pointing, as in the curricular side doesn’t know what the IT side is doing. That’s where you see a lot of friction and that lock-it-and-block-it mentality of, “No you can’t do that.” Having been in that role, the more we say yes to the more that comes onto our plate, but the more kids can benefit so it’s a balance. And in the best districts, everyone is working hand-in-hand, side-by-side.

My advice to tech directors: Visit a Kindergarten classroom, not just to fix something. Talk to teachers. And on the other side, it’s unfair for us to be condescending to tech directors who don’t have an education background if we’re not giving them the vision of what we want learning to look like.